Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Biograph Company

The Voice of the Violin (1909)

This early effort by D.W. Griffith is far from his most sophisticated work, but it does show real talent at an early point in his career. It focuses on immigrants and their differing responses to American culture, with a definite message concerning those responses.

The movie begins with a long scene that establishes most of the conflict – after spoiling this with a forward-facing Intertitle that reads “scorned by the heiress, the music master listens to the reasoning of the anarchists.” Arthur V. Johnson plays a character called “Von Schmitt,’ who is the music master. We see him in his modest home, and he is visited by a mustached fellow who shows him a pamphlet and makes some gestures describing the divide between rich and poor, and advocating equality for all. Von Schmitt is unimpressed, and shows him out before his pupil, a wealthy young lady (Marion Leonard), arrives with her maid (Anita Hendrie) in tow.  This is Helen Walker, the “heiress” of the Intertitle. The two of them stand very close and speak animatedly while staring into one another’s eyes, demonstrating their apparent affection, and the maid interrupts by giving the heiress her violin and bow. When she plays, it is obvious that she has little promise as a violinist, but Von Schmitt continues to try to woo her. Eventually, he goes too far, and she is offended. Her father (Frank Powell), a wealthy man in a fur coat, then comes in and quarrels with Von Schmitt, taking his daughter away from the upstart. Now his friend returns with a more polished radical (David Miles), and they repeat the gestures and the slogan “No High. No Low. All Equal” is revealed in an Intertitle. This time Von Schmitt is more responsive, angry as he is at the rich for excluding him, and he sees this as a way to eliminate the barrier between himself and Helen.

The next scene shows a radical meeting, and signs are posted in the background to again communicate the slogan and aims of the organization. Many of the actors in this scene are made up to look like immigrants, and there is also a somewhat masculine woman (possibly a reference to Emma Goldman?) who leads some of the discussion. A poverty-stricken child is put on a table to demonstrate how wealth inequality hurts the innocent. When Von Schmitt and his friend enter, they are welcomed as comrades. The entire group repeats the high/low/equal gestures, and Von Schmitt echoes it. Then there is a drawing of lots to see who will plant a bomb against a “monopolist.” Of course, Von Schmitt and his friend are the lucky winners. After having their wrists cut to seal their oath, they are presented with a classic round black spherical bomb with a long fuse.

The next scene is on a New York street, in front of a brownstone festooned with American flags. We see Helen and her father drive up in a fancy car and enter the house, letting the audience know who “the monopolist” in question will be before the anarchists arrive. Von Schmitt and his friend walk up shortly afterwards and look around suspiciously. They go down to the lower level entrance and force open a basement window. The friend goes in while Von Schmitt stands watch outside. The scene cuts to the interior of the basement, and the friend sets up the bomb and lights the fuse, having some difficulty getting it started. As he hesitates, he points to the wound on his wrist, reminding himself of his pledge, and this gives him the fortitude to carry on.

We then cut back outside to see Von Schmitt, who hears music from inside the house. He peers in the window and we see Helen playing, inside her well-appointed home. He realizes at last whose home he has been sent out to destroy, and rushes down to the basement, desperate to convince his friend to douse the fuse, or to do it himself. The friend again makes the ritual gestures and also points to the wounds on their wrists, but Von Schmitt is determined to stop the bomb blast. So, the two fight and Von Schmitt is tied up and left in the basement. He wakes up as the time runs down and worms his way across the floor to the fuse, biting it with his teeth to prevent the explosion. In doing so, he makes enough noise that a liveried servant comes down to investigate, and he reports to Mr. Walker what he has found. Soon, the whole household is in the basement, and Von Schmitt is freed and thanked for saving everyone’s lives. Mr. Walker picks up the bomb carefully and takes it upstairs with him.

The final scene shows Von Schmitt and Helen at another lesson, this time in the Walkers’ home. The maid again intervenes when they get too close, but ultimately Mr. Walker comes in and encourages their embrace.

Now, I’ve been pretty critical on this blog about D.W. Griffith’s most famous features, but I’m generally a fan of the shorts he made at Biograph. To the degree that he did innovate and invent the “grammar” of motion pictures (I tend to consider this claim to be an inflation of his importance), I think it can best be appreciated in this early work. Here, although the tension is ruined by the Intertitles and there are other problems, we do see him experimenting with cross-cutting in the bomb-lighting sequence between the basement, the stoop, and Helen’s apartment. The biggest problem with that scene is the resolution – there is no insert shot showing Von Schmitt biting the fuse, so it’s hard to see what’s happening at that point. The first time I watched, I thought it was Walker who defused the bomb at the point when he picked it up. Still, comparing this to the completely sequential rescue scene in “The Black Hand,” it is undeniably the more sophisticated approach.

Anarchism and other forms of radicalism were associated at this time both with immigration and with terrorism, so one can see this movie as promoting a nationalist or even jingoist position. However, Biograph was aware that much of the audience for their movies came from urban immigrant areas, so this message is tempered by the “good” immigrant, who comes to be accepted by the wealthy Mr. Walker, once he has demonstrated his merit. Von Schmitt is only tempted by the radical message when class prejudice keeps him from Helen, but he isn’t basically evil or un-American. The portrayal of the radical meeting is interesting, showing both rabble-like agitation and also conspiratorial discipline. During the oath-taking, there are members dressed in dark robes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, which Griffith would later make into the heroes of “The Birth of a Nation,” but here the robed figures are undeniably sinister, but perhaps also a bit comic in their inappropriateness to the situation. Griffith may have intended this to show the corruption of symbolism through its appropriation by the enemies of justice, although to us today it seems like an unlikely depiction of urban radicalism.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer and Arthur Marvin

Starring: Arthur V. Johnson, Marion Leonard, David Miles, Anita Hendrie, Frank Powell, Mack Sennett, John R. Cumpson, Dorothy West

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

 

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How They Rob Men in Chicago (1900)

AKA: “How They Welcome Strangers in Chicago”

This short comedy from the Biograph studio pokes fun at urban crime. In its short running time, it manage to make a sly New York observation about the corruption of another city as well.

A man dressed as a “swell” walks onto a set representing a city street, with stores in the background. He stops and turns as a woman walks by smiling at him, and this allows a nearby thug to approach him from behind and “sap” him with a blackjack. He goes down, and the mugger grabs what he can before running off. A policeman walks on set from the other direction, and noticing the unconscious man, he leans down. Rather than helping him, he removes another item from the victim and pockets it before leaving.

New York and Chicago, as two of the largest cities in the US, have long had a friendly rivalry over their relative conditions and safety. At the time this movie was made, Chicago’s police force were untrained patrolmen who had to pay a share of their wages to political bosses, and many of them supplemented their earnings through graft and bribes. The Biograph company, located in New York, also a locus of criminal and police collusion, took advantage of the known situation in their rival city to produce this film. I admit, the policeman’s actions got a laugh out of me over a hundred and fifteen years after its production.

Director: Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Arthur Marvin

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

 

The Black Hand (1906)

This short from Biograph disproves the commonly-made claim that “Musketeers of Pig Alley” was the first gangster movie. Unlike that movie, however, it shows little noble or romantic in the behavior of immigrant criminals, instead emphasizing the decency of the police and of the victims.

The movie consists of just a few shots, mostly with the action staged at quite a distance from the camera. The first shot is somewhat closer, however, and gives us a view of the villains of the story as they write out a note demanding extortion money from “Mr. Angelo,” threatening him with property destruction and the abduction of his daughter if he fails to comply. The gangsters are clearly marked as Sicilian in their attire and appearance, and their poor education is emphasized in the badly spelled ransom note. Read the rest of this entry »

Sherlock Baffled (1900)

Alternate Title: Sherlock Holmes Baffled

This is a short trick film from Biograph that closely follows the formula created for such comedies by Georges Méliès. It is notable for being the first known instance of the character of Sherlock Holmes portrayed in film, and has even been suggested as the “first detective film.”

sherlock_holmes_baffledA man in the black clothing of a conventional burglar is putting objects into a bag in a small room with a table. Another man in a dressing gown enters (presumably this is Holmes) and puts his hand on the burglar’s shoulder. The burglar disappears. Holmes seems to lose interest in the mystery and sits down to light a cigar. The cigar gives off a large puff of smoke, and at the same moment, the burglar reappears in front of Holmes. Holmes pursues him and even fires a revolver at him, but the burglar disappears and reappears in different parts of the room, evading capture or injury. When he seems to have disappeared for good, Holmes picks up the sack and begins to leave the room, but suddenly the sack disappears and appears in the hands of the burglar, crouched in the open window. The burglar waves goodbye and departs with the loot, and Holmes throws up his hands in defeat.

This movie won’t do much for most fans of Sherlock Holmes, and the name was probably used for simple name-recognition purposes (the William Gillette play had recently opened in New York), rather than as an intentional homage. Holmes is essentially a clown and a victim here, not the brilliant detective of the stories. This movie was actually not shown in theaters, but released in the “peep show” coin-operated Mutoscope format for arcades in May of 1900. It closely follows the formula of such Méliès films as “The Magician,” wherein the protagonist is plagued by an appearing and disappearing nuisance. Director Arthur Marvin handles this reasonably competently, but without the agility and style of Méliès, unfortunately.

Director: Arthur Marvin

Camera: Arthur Marvin

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

Interior New York City Subway (1905)

Alternate Title: Interior N.Y. subway, 14th St. to 42nd St.

This is a surprisingly artful “actuality” film, showing the New York City subway for people all over the country who had only heard or read about it. This is a great example of how the cinema brought people from all over the country (and world) together, and established iconic images that everyone would recognize, even if they had never seen the original.

Interior New York SubwayThis film consists of a single long shot taken from the front of a train following another train. The train we follow is in actual service – it stops at stations and lets people on and off, but “our” train (which we never see) simply keeps pace with it. Another train runs on the side track, with a platform full of lighting equipment, which makes it possible to see the train in front (and the tunnels), but it also sometimes comes into view of the camera. The train runs, according to the notes of cameraman Billy Bitzer, from 14th Street to 42nd, and we can see signs that say “Grand Central” when it pulls into the final station, which suggests that we are following the course of the modern-day 6 train, which I believe was part of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) line at the time. This train must be an express, because it doesn’t stop at all of the stations we pass through.

Interior New York Subway1Much of this film shows us racing along in a dark tunnel, with just the back of the train ahead of us visible. We only get a square of light, with the girders of the tunnel appearing and disappearing as the light passes over them, and then an occasional station, which we don’t see very well, because we are looking ahead, not to the sides. It’s a lot like what you see when you stare out the front of a subway train, which I have always found somewhat hypnotic. I should mention that I grew up in New York City, and I regularly rode the Subway for family outings (eg: to the Bronx Zoo) and later every day to get to High School. Today, many of my worst nightmares, or more precisely, anxiety dreams, are set in the subway system: usually the theme is that I have a destination, but I miss my stop, or go to the wrong tracks and can’t find a way to the right ones, or am otherwise prevented from getting to my destination. I have this dream most frequently when I am stressed out about a task which seems endless or impossible, or when I am feeling frustrated and hopeless. The images of this movie invoked that dream-landscape for me, but happily without the accompanying stress. I was able to accept that I was just along for the ride, and enjoyed it, knowing it would end soon enough.

Director: Billy Bitzer

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Unknown subway riders

Run Time: 6 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

Star Theatre (1901)

Alternate Title: Demolishing and Building up the Star Theatre

This short from Biograph is a good early example of time-lapse photography and probably fascinated audiences of the day. While we’ve seen the technique often enough now, it’s still interesting to watch and think about its place in history.

Star TheatreThe camera appears to be stationed on the third or fourth floor of a building in New York. It faces an intersection, with a building prominently labeled as “Star Theatre.” At first, the camera runs at normal speed, and we see people walking along, streetcars driving by, etc. Then, the time-lapse begins and everything seems to be moving very quickly. At first, the building seems unchanged, but if you watch the windows, you can see it being gutted of interior materials. After a time, the roof comes off, and we see workers, almost like busy ants, swarming over the building and razing it bit by bit. Occasionally, you can glimpse one of them hitting the walls with a large hammer, but for the most part they blip by too fast to be distinguished. Soon, in place of the building is a large vacant lot. The camera again slows down to normal speed and we see people passing the space where once the Star Theatre stood.

Star Theatre1The Star Theatre was a pretty important location for live theater in New York for many years. It stood at 13th and Broadway from 1861 to 1901 and was involved in the first rise of what we today think of as “Broadway theater.” The center of the theater district, however, began moving north in the 1880s and by 1901, the owner had decided to relocate to 30th Street. Hence, this demolition of the old building, then known among locals as “the old Star Theatre” to distinguish it from the new one. As it happens, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was located at 11 East 14th Street, not at all far from 13th and Broadway. No doubt, the director, F.S. Armitage, saw an opportunity for a movie of local and probably national interest in the demolition of a beloved old landmark. He could have simply shot it a piece at a time, but he was smart enough to think of setting up the camera in a spot where it wouldn’t be disturbed (quite possibly the roof of the Biograph building” and taking a few frames a day over the 30 day demolition period. The result is very good. I found myself wondering whether the people flitting by on the street bemoaned the loss of their long-standing landmark, or whether people worried less about that sort of historic preservation in those days.

Director: F.S. Armitage

Camera: F.S. Armitage

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Lonedale Operator (1911)

This is one of the most talked-about of D.W. Griffith’s early shorts, in terms of his contributions to film “grammar” and especially editing. It is a fast-paced action film in which a pair of non-descript hobo thieves threaten Blanche Sweet, who manages to use her wits and high technology to save herself.

Blanche knows how to keep a man.

Blanche knows how to keep a man.

The movie begins when “the young engineer” (Francis J. Grandon) is assigned to take out a locomotive. He seems to be hanging around the railroad tracks, hoping for work, and he gets up quickly to head out to the station, but not without stopping by to see his girl, Blanche Sweet. Sweet is shown reading a book, letting us know she’s smart, and her house fronts on the tracks, giving us a sense of her class and the likelihood that her family are railroad people. She walks to the station with Francis, but refuses him a kiss. When they arrive, Francis takes over his train, but Blanche stops in to visit her father (George Nichols), the wireless operator. He’s not feeling well, so Blanche offers to take over for him. He agrees, and offers her the revolver in his pocket, but she assures him she’ll be fine, and he leaves her alone and unarmed. She waves goodbye to her beau, excited to have this great responsibility thrust on her.

No, I probably won't need it!

No, I probably won’t need it!

Soon, we see the arrival of the payroll for the local mine, which is delivered to her care, and the simultaneous arrival of two tramps (one of them is Dell Henderson, a Griffith favorite) who’ve been riding under the train. They hide out until the train has gone, and then try to get into the office to take the money. Blanche realizes what they are up to and locks the door, but with no gun, it’s only a matter of time until they break in. She quickly telegraphs the next station that there’s an attempted break-in going on and arms herself with a wrench. The boyfriend, hearing of his girl’s distress, now jumps on his engine and hightails it back to the station, but can he make it in time? Well, the tramps do break in, but Blanche turns the wrench around to look like a gun and holds them at bay until the train arrives and she is rescued. The tramps go to jail, and the money goes to its rightful payees. Presumably Blanche and Francis get hitched.

Competant and capable.

Competant and capable.

Now, this is a good movie, but I think its significance has been rather over-stated. For example, the Wikipedia entry says, “Unlike most films at the time which had a simple plot line set in one location, The Lonedale Operator “intercuts three primary spaces—the telegraph office interior, the criminals outside, and the rescue train.” Although audiences in 1911 were not used to such editing, the use of the telegraph helped them understand the crosscutting between scenes in such a way that they could follow the plot.” I think this kind of thinking comes about because the only movies people ever see from this period are D.W. Griffith and Georges Méliès. I mean, come on! Intercutting of primary spaces goes back to at least “Life of an American Fireman” (1902) and it’s done with greater sophistication in “The Great Train Robbery” (1903). Admittedly, neither of those depends on THREE simultaneous spaces (just two at a time), but I hardly think audiences were too dumb ten years later to figure it out. Even the claim that “most films” used only “one location” is ridiculous – by 1911, many films were shot on several sets, although I’ll grant you that many plots still unfolded sequentially.

Lonedale Operator3So, while it’s maybe not so innovative as is suggested, it is a good example of what could be done with established technique, and I’m even willing to grant that in terms of editing it was better than what most audiences were seeing up to then. Griffith understood the potential editing offered, and used it well. But, he didn’t invent sliced bread. One of his major (real) contributions to film was his use of very young actresses. Blanche Sweet was only 15 at the time. Griffith seems to have understood that, with the greater intimacy the camera offered over the stage, audiences would be aware of the facial details of the stars, and so he shot for a kind of personal ideal that obviously had mass popular attraction. While that has some creepy or even misogynist undertones, note that in this movie the female star is not portrayed as utterly helpless. Even without a gun, she figures out a way to save herself and tricks the bad guys with a wrench. She’s obviously well-read, and knows enough about Morse to send a clear distress call. She’s not quite tough enough to clobber the tramps by herself (and that would have been a bit hard to believe), but she’s the equal of any boy her age, at least. One other thing stuck out to me on my latest viewing of this movie: there’s a stunt that most people probably don’t think twice about. Seconds after the train pulls into the station, Dell and his buddy crawl out form underneath it – showing that they were riding that way, clinging to the bottom of the car, for at least some distance. That’s a dangerous way to ride a large vehicle like a train! If one of them had slipped, no one could have stopped the train until the whole thing had rolled over them, easily removing an appendage or worse! Never let it be said that actors took no risks on these movies.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Francis J. Grandon, George Nichols, Dell Henderson, Joseph Graybill, Verner Clarges, Edward Dillon, Wilfred Lucas, W. Chrystie Miller, Charles West.

Run Time: 17 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

A Natural Born Gambler (1916)

Race is a consistently problematic issue with this project, especially for movies which depict African Americans for mostly white audiences. Here, we get a black actor who may have had black audiences in mind during his performance, but who was working for a decidedly white company in doing so. The result is more than a little uncomfortable, although still successfully funny at times.

Natural Born GamblerBert Williams (who plays a character named Bert Williams) is a member of Independent Order of Calcimine Artists of America, a fraternal order which meets in a saloon. He is forced to pay up his dues in order to stay for the gambling which follows the meeting. After the meeting and much argument, Bert carries home his right hand man “Limpy” Jones, because Limpy has a broken leg. As they walk through a graveyard en route from the saloon, they overhear two thieves whom they suspect to be the devil when they hear them speaking. This puts them in a panic and Bert drops Limpy in order to run away. Limpy gets up and runs, quickly overtaking Bert, and showing that his leg was not really broken after all. Bert runs into the thieves outside the graveyard, and is not frightened, since they are normal-looking men. They become friendly and Bert invites them back to the saloon, where Limpy has already run to. Bert joins another dice game, and the thieves lose the chickens they had stolen.

Natural Born Gambler1Meanwhile, Brother Scott of the Order is on a crusade against gambling. He has written an article for the paper claiming that the “evil” is all but gone from town. He breaks up the dice game and takes the money left behind. Another card game gets going when a rich gambler from the North arrives, and Bert and Limpy cheat to take his winnings. The lookout warns the gamblers that “the town sleuth” (a white man) is coming, and they clean up the place and Bert reads Brother Scott’s article against gambling aloud to make it look good. Unfortunately, the cop spots a stray card on the floor. The game resumes when he leaves. Suddenly, the sleuth returns with the police and since the lookout fails to give warning, everyone is arrested. The action now shifts to a courtroom, where the judge gives Brother Scott the winnings from the gambling as a lawyer’s fee, and sentences Bert to ten days in jail. Inside his jail cell, Bert is overcome by his gambling fever and fantasizes about being in a card game, showing through pantomime that he is living a game that isn’t really happening.

Natural_Born_GamblerThe “Slapstick Encyclopedia” presents this movie with a quote from Bert Williams: “It is no disgrace to be a Negro, but it is very inconvenient.” Similarly, this film is not an insult to Williams and his talent as a comedian, but it remains hard to watch in some ways. The African Americans in the film are lazy, shiftless, dishonest, stupid, superstitious, childish, and especially addicted to gambling. Williams himself wears blackface, to emphasize his African American features for the audience, a trick he picked up in the mostly white world of Vaudeville and the Ziegfeld follies, where he was the first black performer. Still, this is the first movie I’ve seen from this period with an African American star, and his name was heavily used to promote the movie. Williams, performing within the constraints of the situation, shows himself to be a talented comedian with excellent timing and an emphasis on comedic pantomime over slapstick. It is easy to see why he was such a success – a combination of talent and a willingness not to rock the boat of racial inequity too hard. W.C. Fields evidently referred to Williams as both “the funniest man” and “the saddest man” he ever knew, and that sums up a lot of what can said about the history of African American comedy.

Bert Williams out of makeup.

Bert Williams out of makeup.

The production is interesting in some other ways as well. It was produced at Biograph Studios, which had been crippled after the departure of D.W. Griffith and nearly all of his best artists in 1913. This year (1916) would include its final new releases, before it became a source only of re-issues of once-great films. It’s interesting to question how Bert Williams became associated with the dying company, and how much this movie did to keep the doors open at 14th Street. Wikipedia claims that this movie was shot by Billy Bitzer, the cameraman best known for his work with Griffith, and who had left with Griffith in 1913 and gone on to work on “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 and “Intolerance” in 1916. “The Silent Era,” a usually reliable source, puts question marks around this claim, but also suggests that Bitzer may have directed (!) as well. Bitzer’s autobiography, which includes a very detailed filmography of his work, makes no mention of the movie at all, so I’m going to assume it’s a mistake, barring new evidence. It’s hard for me to imagine Bitzer and Biograph reconciling for the duration of this one film.

Director: Bert Williams

Camera: Uncertain (see above)

Cast: Bert Williams, Wes Jenkins

Run Time: 22 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)

A Trap for Santa (1909)

Trap_for_Santa_ClausWith Christmas coming at the end of his first year working for Biograph, D.W. Griffith released this one-reel seasonal movie with a heartwarming ending and a hint of social message. It shows the level that he had already achieved in terms of storytelling and film technique.

A family in want.

A family in want.

A family is destitute, and the situation grows bleaker as the father (Henry B. Walthall), unable to find work to feed his children, turns to drink in order to forget his worries. The mother (Marion Leonard) tries to make the most of the situation, but she scolds the father when he comes in drunk and wakes the children. Desperate, he leaves the house, fearing that he may be a worse influence on his own children if he stays. The bartender (Mack Sennett) at his usual dive doesn’t appreciate it when he tries to sleep on the table , and throws him out into the cold. The mother tries to find work, but is turned away from the employment agency. When she returns home, she finds that the hungry child she left there alone has eaten their last crusty loaf of bread. Then, some men arrive with some good news: her aunt’s estate has been settled at last, and she is the inheritor of a small fortune. She and the children move into a nice house with a maid (Kate Bruce). When Christmas rolls around, she explains to the kids that Santa will come in through the window, since there is no chimney, and the kids hatch a plan to “trap” Santa by leaving a basket covered by a picture frame right where he will step (it’s lucky he doesn’t break his neck!). Mom manages to get them to bed, but she sighs while trying on the Santa suit, wishing they had a father to play the role.

Trap for Santa1Then, in a typically Griffithian coincidence, the starving father now tries to break into the wealthy home to steal some money or at least food, but finds himself confronted by his estranged wife. The girls think their trap has worked, but mom convinces them to stay in bed. Immediately, the couple puts a new plan into action and the father puts on the Santa suit and acts like he is caught in the trap. Mother rouses the girls, who come out and dance with “Santa.” The family is reunited in love.

Santa is trapped.

Santa is trapped.

It’s a happy ending, and I found it emotionally effective, but after all, the drunk may continue being a drunk now that his wife has money. We can hope not, and clearly Griffith wants us to believe that he will reform, since it was only hunger and desperation that made him drink and (try to) steal. Billy Bitzer’s photography is effective and the camera is at least close enough to cut off the actors’ feet and give us some intimacy with the action. There are only a few camera set-ups, and these are static and set to mid-shot throughout, but the editing makes the story work better than a lot of the movies of the period. Where shots in 1909 generally followed one another sequentially, this movie allows for simultaneous action as the father first deserts the family, and then later when he is “trapped” by the children in the next room. Leonard somewhat overdid her acting, pointing and pantomiming to make sure that the audience knew what was said, but overall the performances were good. I was particularly pleased to see Gladys Egan (from “In the Border States”) show up as the daughter.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: G.W. Bitzer

Cast: Henry B. Walthall, Marion Leonard, Gladys Egan, Kate Bruce, Mack Sennett, W. Chrystie Miller

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no mucic) or here (with music).

The House of Darkness (1913)

House_of_Darkness_(1913)1It’s not quite October, when I continue my history of horror films, and this short by D.W Griffith isn’t quite a horror movie. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult to measure the development of horror as a genre, because early filmmakers appear to have been reluctant about overtly trying to frighten audiences, even though in other areas the public was quite willing to be frightened. By the time Griffith made “The Avenging Conscience” in 1914, he seems to have been willing to take the plunge, but with this movie – not exactly. I’m still tagging it as part of the horror fest, though, in part because of the title, and in part because it has certain parallels with “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the movie with which most traditional histories of the horror movie begin.

House of Darkness2The movie is structured much like other progressivist message pictures we’ve seen from Griffith, beginning with a generalized problem and then closing in on a more intimate and personal storyline. In this case, the opening Intertitle assures us of a happy ending: this is the story of “how the mind of an unfortunate was brought to reason by music.” It begins, however, with a side story of a woman who suffers from mental disease, believing her baby is still alive when it is actually dead. The next sequence makes no sense to me at all – I actually wonder if it was shot for another movie. A clerk in an office seems distraught, then a young child with a doll comes in and he gives her some money (folding money, which would be a big deal in 1913). Then he breaks down and starts weeping and his co-workers gather around him. We don’t see him again. Next, we are taken to an asylum for the insane, where a doctor (Lionel Barrymore) and a nurse (Claire McDowell) carry on an accelerated romance and are wed. In the courtyard of the same asylum, a fight breaks out between two lunatics. Finally, an inmate (Charles Hill Mailes) emerges as the center of the action, as he breaks and runs, apparently meaning to escape. The attendants catch him when he stops to listen to Lillian Gish playing the piano. Once he is away from the music, however, his violent tendencies take over and he breaks and runs. Soon there are many attendants in pursuit, but he eludes them and manages to wrest a gun from some passers-by he accosts. Now he makes his way to the home of the doctor, where the nurse/wife is alone with a cat. He breaks in and threatens to kill her, but when she accidentally hits the keys of a piano, the man stops short. Now she soothes him by playing a tune, and the attendants and her husband show up to take him back to the hospital. In the most improbable sequence of an improbable movie, we now see Mailes “cured” of his malady by repeat sessions of “music therapy” in which McDowell plays the piano for him until he is rational again.

House_of_Darkness_(1913)The movie has a lot of problems, which I have to suspect Griffith would have been conscious of by this time. Really, it needs more than one reel for this story to unfold and be at all believable, and Griffith was campaigning for longer films at this time, so that fits. But, the bizarre sequence with the character who never returns is more likely an afterthought or an error of some kind, perhaps Griffith’s mistake, perhaps of other provenance. The premise calls for a more horrific treatment as well, if we saw the world, as in “Caligari” through the eyes of the madman, the illogic of it might well seem more appropriate. While it may have foreshadowed, or even inspired that film, it also resembles a 1904 Biograph comedy, “The Escaped Lunatic,” which also involves a chase after a mentally ill asylum escapee who stops and starts at unpredictable moments. It is quite possible that Griffith was familiar with this movie and decided (or was ordered) to try remaking it as a drama, which could explain some of its weaknesses.

House of DarknessNot to say that the movie is a total failure. There are some good parts. The acting, especially by McDowell and Mailes, is top-notch. Some of Billy Bitzer’s camerawork is fairly daring – notably a shot mirroring the famous one in “Musketeers of Pig Alley” in which actors approach the camera until they are in extreme close-up. In this case, Mailes “sneaks” toward the camera, at times concealing himself behind palm trees, until he emerges in very close range from behind the nearest of them, staring maniacally into space. Bitzer was unable to keep him in focus during the approach (adjusting focal length in the middle of a shot simply wasn’t possible with the technology of the time), but he did manage to set the lens to focus on him at this most frightening final moment. There are also good close-ups of the cat and of hands playing the piano. Griffith makes use of the editing techniques he was known for, especially cross-cutting, to keep the tension high as the pursuit advances. Finally, this is one of those silent movies where the soundtrack makes or breaks it, and the score by Sidney Jill Lehman on the Flicker Alley DVD-on-demand release is perfect for it.

House of Darkness1Director: DW Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles Hill Mailes, Claire McDowell, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Christy Cabanne, Kate Bruce

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)